Rethinking Mistakes, Misadventures, and Failed Efforts

Think you are a good judge of your own mistakes?

Turns out, according to Kathryn Schulz, we’re generally terrible at it. Schulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error and writes the “Wrong Stuff” column for Slate. Although being wrong is the stuff of human nature, notes Schulz, we have a very difficult time accepting how often we make mistakes.

Kathryn Schulz

This gap between perception and reality explains how things that really matter, from estimating the stability of our housing markets to the fidelity of our spouse, can go so wrong. “You might think it’s about a failure to look inward,” Schulz says. “I want to suggest that’s exactly backward. In fact, we spend a lot of time thinking about the accuracy of our perspectives.” According to Schulz, this deeper feeling of accuracy is incredibly seductive but it often fails to reveal what’s really going on.

Schulz underscores her point with a story about a boy who remembered listening to a baseball game on the radio when the broadcast was interrupted by news of a disaster. For years, he recalled the event as the moment that he learned that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. It was only years later, that the boy, now a man, realized that the two events could not have occurred on the same day.

The boy from Schulz’ story who misremembered Pearl Harbor? His name is Ulric Neisser, and he’s now one of the foremost memory researchers. According to Schulz, Neisser’s research reveals that, among other things, about 60% of us misremember some critical pieces of two-thirds of our claims, and fully one-quarter of us are wrong in every major detail surrounding an event.

If we can’t trust the feeling of rightness, Schulz asks, what about the feeling of wrongness?

You’re probably thinking being wrong feels like embarrassment or shame. In fact, Schulz says, “That’s just how it feels to realize you’re wrong.” In fact, Schulz notes, being wrong doesn’t feel like anything. This is something Schulz calls “error blindness,” the inability to know which beliefs we hold might be wrong.

Apparently, our inner feeling of being right so consistently misleads us that we need to look outside of ourselves – and toward each other. This is why, Schulz says, we have co-pilots, shut-off valves, and the countless other devices that act as “fail safes.”

How can we do this in our own lives? Schulz says that we need to look to each other. The wider we cast this net, Schulz urges, the better off we are. The open source model can uncover errors very quickly for this very reason, but Schulz says we can do this by externalizing how we determine when we get something right or wrong. In other words, we need people who disagree with us, including our critics and adversaries.

By doing this, we risk being wrong but we also open ourselves to the possibilities of getting it right. Shulz notes that over history, one generation’s idea of a truism becomes the next generation’s idea of folly and falsehood. By allowing for the possibility of someone having a better idea, we can help ensure a more stable economy, safer oil rigs and better criminal justice procedures.

In a Q&A session, a member of the audience asked the morning’s speakers how to integrate this kind of thinking in the U.S. education system. Schulz responded by noting the lopsided emphasis on accuracy happens at the cost of allowing kids to fail, which is where real learning often takes place.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

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